You Don’t Know Where You’re Going Until You’re on the Way There: Why Public “Work” Matters

Paul N. Markham
Western Kentucky University, USA


This article addresses the health of American democracy and the role young people play in reimagining citizenship for the twenty-first century.

Despite the abundance of community service, volunteerism, and service learning programs at educational institutions across the U.S., the author argues that a new approach is required to move beyond the political and cultural barriers we face. The practice of “public work” is offered as a way forward through a consumer culture paralyzed by hopes of outside “fixes” and “expert-driven” solutions. The power of public work is based on its embrace of narrative identity and people‟s ability to see politics not as a fight over limited resources, but as a way for citizens with diverse interests to build a common society together, and through this process call educators back to the historical roots of service learning.

Consuming Democracy

I remember the sense of irony I felt when Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live‟s Weekend Update introduced their new “financial expert,” Oscar Rogers (played by Kenan Thompson). Meyers led with a general statement about the country‟s political and economic woes, then asked Rogers for advice on how to address the problems. Fans of Thompson‟s character will know the answer – “FIX IT!” In his characteristically fidgety manner, Rogers exclaims, “These people need to FIX IT! I‟ve been a financial consultant for sixteen years and I have never seen it this out of control. They need to clamp it down and FIX IT!

When I wake up tomorrow morning it better be FIXED!” In an attempt to fish out details, Meyers asks Rogers what specifically should be done to fix the problem. “I‟ll take it one step at a time, Seth. Identify the problem, FIX IT! Identify another problem, FIX IT! Repeat as necessary until it‟s all FIXED!”

This SNL sketch provides a humorous perspective on a stark cultural reality that cuts across our country – the widespread recognition that we have serious problems in our society, but it‟s up to someone else to “fix it.” Rather than co-creators of our democracy, citizens are have come to see themselves as consumers of public goods and services. This is a pervasive problem that many sense, but is often difficult to articulate and requires complex solutions. In October 2009, Tom Friedman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called “More Poetry, Please.” The article was written as journalists all around the country were reflecting on the one-year anniversary of the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Amidst the various challenges presented to Obama at that time, Friedman noted that he doesn‟t think the President has a policy problem; rather, he feels Obama has a “narrative problem.” What did he mean by this? Friedman points out that the multitude of problems we face – including healthcare, the economy, climate change, energy crisis, education, and foreign policy – requires an approach beyond standard political strategies – one that appeals to a sense of hope and purpose in the American people.

Friedman says that any way through the challenges we face requires a “motivated public and a spirit of shared sacrifice.” He goes on to quote Michael Sandel, a Harvard political theorist, as saying that in his view, “Obama‟s election marked a shift from a politics that celebrated privatized concerns to a politics that recognized the need for effective government and larger public purposes.

Across the political spectrum, people understood that national renewal requires big ambition, and a better kind of politics.” This “better kind of politics” resonates with “Everyday Politics” described by Harry Boyte as critical to individuals seeing themselves as “co-creators of democracy, not simply as customers or clients, voters, protestors, or volunteers” (Boyte 2004, p. 5).

Friedman concludes his article with another quote from Sandel saying, “You cannot build a nation without shared sacrifice and you cannot inspire shared sacrifice without a narrative that appeals to the common good – a narrative that challenges us to be citizens engaged in a common endeavor, not just consumers seeking the best deal for ourselves. Obama needs to energize the prose of this presidency by recapturing the poetry of his campaign.” This final sentence was the cause for the title of Friedman‟s article. The “poetry of the campaign” that Sandel spoke about was the strong spirit of hope that marked Obama supporters. The campaign was built on community organizing principles where people understood that it was not about what Obama could do, but about what we could do together as active citizens. This mindset was captured in the popular phrase “Yes We Can” that was so often heard through the election season. It is worth noting that the “Yes We Can” sentiment crosses partisan boundaries in so far as the central message is about the power of ordinary citizens to address their own problems and create a common sense of destiny.

This spirit resonates with citizens from the Democratic Party to the Tea Party.

The history of the United States is built on the notion that democracy depends on people‟s sense of common ownership. This is expressed in the idea of America as a “commonwealth.” Despite this rich history, unchecked consumerism threatens our collective future. Benjamin Barber describes this hyper-consumerist mentality as a totalitarian “ethos of induced childishness” that not only seeks to turn the young into aggressive consumers, but to arrest the psychological development of adults, generating a “civic schizophrenia” where citizens demand services without a sense of individual responsibility for our collective well-being (Barber 2007). In this context, citizens are redefined as consumers, customers, or clients of government services and political campaigns take on a strong marketing character. The challenge before us is how to renew a vibrant democracy in which citizens once again understand themselves as co- creators of American society where politics is grounded in the life and work of the people. Similarly, educators must come to grips with how service learning can help meet this challenge.

Re-Imagining Citizenship

I can remember one time when [Jane Addams and I] talked about this business of democracy and I asked her, “Well, what do you think democracy means?” She said, “It means people have the right to make decisions. If there is a group of people sitting around a country store and there‟s a problem they‟re talking about, there are two ways to do it. They can go out and get some official to tell them what to do, or they can talk it out and discuss it themselves. Democracy is if they did it themselves.” I asked her where she got that idea, and she said she heard if from her father, who was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. I told her I didn‟t think that was bad advice at all – Myles Horton, The Long Haul(1998, p. 49).

Talk at the national level often focuses on “reinventing government,” “changing Washington,” or “overhauling the political system.” While this is certainly a worthwhile goal, in order to address these large structural changes, we must first re-imagine citizenship for the twenty-first century. Addressing the customer service mentality pervasive throughout our democracy requires more than policy change alone – it requires a culture change, a new civic imagination. This new kind of everyday politics emphasizes the creative role of citizens and their ability to solve a wide variety of complex public problems. Examples of this kind of thinking arise in unlikely places. For instance, young people have shown a remarkable ability to address complex problems when they are given the space to develop public problem solving skills and capacities.

A vivid example is found in the Public Achievement (PA) program developed by the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. Public Achievement works in a school setting to help students recognize that people of every age have skills, talents and ideas, and that by learning to work strategically with others they can solve problems and build sustainable democratic societies. While PA projects may focus on a wide variety of issues ranging from playgrounds to gang violence, the program itself stresses the development of individual civic agency – qualities that apply across the spectrum of democratic societies. When asked to reflect on his participation in PA, fourth grade student, Matt Anderson, commented, “The reason why I did Public Achievement is because things in the

world are wrong. Public Achievement and Dr. King are alike because we both made a difference in the world peacefully. We both look at the problems and solve them instead of blaming people” (Boyte, p. 77). This fourth grader‟s response captures the spirit of this new civic imagination.

A New Conceptual Language

A key aspect of reconnecting citizens to a vibrant public life is to understand citizenship as the acquisition of a new conceptual language. Linguists argue that in order to understand the world we must already be skilled in a language that allows us to perceive the particulars of any society. Structural linguist Edward Sapir has noted that,

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, not alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the “real world” is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group….We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretations (Bowie 1992, p. 274).

Sapir‟s central point is that experience is internally related to conceptual language. So, while particular word usage is important, the salient feature is the way in which language is used and the character it assumes in human interaction. Our current political discourse in the United States is characterized by a consumer-oriented notion of citizenship, which leads to limited political possibilities. The general tone is that we are helpless to create real change on our own, so we can only praise experts when they fix problems for us or complain when they fail to do so.

In his exploration of the Nature of Doctrine, Postliberal Theologian George Lindbeck demonstrates how the conceptual language available to an individual determines one‟s worldview. Lindbeck asserts that “it is necessary to have the

means for expressing an experience in order to have it….The richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience” (Lindbeck 1984, p. 37). To borrow a phrase from Ludwig Wittgenstin, civic education must be about “acquiring a second first language” (Wittgenstein 1922). In this case, a rich language of citizenship and service rooted in the virtues of public work and shared responsibility can renew the spirit of democracy that has long characterized the American way of life.

Although Lindbeck‟s analysis is directed toward religious experience, the principles he espouses are applicable to the practice of citizenship. His primary point is that language learning is a particular process-oriented type of moral formation. Fluency is gained in citizenship through participation in the everyday life of a community as its members engage in diverse relationships, activities, and speech that give the group its unique personality. Without experiences that give life to “citizenship,” the concept itself becomes a mere word that can be separated from the forms of action that give it meaning.

A key aspect in the acquisition of a conceptual language is the way in which individuals and communities draw upon shared narratives. The power of narrative is a vital, and often overlooked, aspect of human social life. The stories we tell ourselves are the means through which humans establish their sense of individual and collective identity. David Gutterman argues that “Narratives provide the scaffolding that offers the degree of stability we create in our world…[they] do not just describe or reflect, but rather define and give meaning to human existence” (Gutterman 2005: 28). Likewise Alasdair MacIntyre suggests, “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal…But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question „What am I to do?‟ if I can answer the prior question „Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?‟” (MacIntyre 1981: 216).

Marshal Ganz has emphasized the practical and formative dimensions of shared stories through his concept of “public narrative” (Ganz 2008). Ganz defines public narrative as the art of translating values into action – a discursive process through which individuals, communities, and nations construct their identity, make choices, and inspire actions. Stories are distinct from data-driven theories in so far as they allow people to communicate values to one another.

Narrative life is not a binary argument that can be won based on logic or evidence. Stories operate at the level of convictions as humans move to action by accessing our emotions. Ganz notes that action requires risk and our willingness to take risks is rooted in our emotions, which are themselves rooted in our values. In essence, stories teach us how to act, and the more rich the life of the community, the more formative their stories become.

Ganz points to three elements of public narrative – story of self, story of us, and story of now. Discovering our own stories allows us to effectively communicate personal values, experiences, and motivations. In turn, cultivating the story of “us” provides a means of redeeming the deeply relational aspect of human nature that consumerism exploits. While consumerist mentality tends toward segmentation and individualization, developing a “story of us” requires deep reflection and engagement with others. The development of such a story entails an appreciation for the complexity of human persons. It transcends roles – Democrats are like this, Republicans are like that, etc. – and embraces the interests and motivations of individual people. Cultivating a collective story animates public life and reminds us that democracy is a tradition that can only be fully realized through the practice of vibrant citizenship.

Ganz‟s final element of the story of now is critical in that it moves the spirit of solidarity established through public narrative to action by transforming the present time into a moment of challenge, hope, and choice. Understanding the present moment is critical, because it allows for the translation of civic sentiment into civic agency. It is at the level of agency that people develop the skills and capacities necessary for sustaining a healthy democracy. In this case, civic knowledge and values are given meaning through engagement in public work.

Why Public Work Matters

So what does any of this have to do with work? Most often we think of work as the aspect of our lives that pays the bills and if we care about the health of society, then we engage in “service” after the work is done. My participation in civic engagement efforts over the past several years has led me to seriously question the relationship between workand service. I have become convinced that work, rather than service, is the defining characteristic of active citizenship.

I want to be clear that I am not discouraging “service” understood as volunteerism, charity, philanthropy, and the like, but I am suggesting that service alone will not provide the solutions we need in our present world. Work is a space that most of us take seriously and where outcomes and productivity matter. In Working Together, Cynthia Estlund defines work as “cooperative activity that makes things.” She brings together a wealth of theoretical perspectives with a large body of social science research and examples from popular culture in order to highlight the value of work and the workplace (Estlund 2005).

According to Estlund, workplaces are the only environments where most people are likely to have sustained encounters with people of differing racial, cultural, and ideological backgrounds. Also, they have such experiences with relative civility, making them relatively conducive to sustained experiences of collaboration. Here evidence shows that these features of work and the workplace enable people to develop enhanced respect for others and to build trust and civic skills. So, I am suggesting that emphasizing “work” as a deep investment of people acting together for a common goal has potential to create environments necessary to shape a conceptual language and form of life that makes constructive citizenship possible.

The practice of public work translates these productive qualities into the public realm as a way of conceiving a new kind of politics. Public work closes the divide between professionals and clients by beginning from the common assumption that both are citizens with different strengths and perspectives.

Experts are not outside fixers, but partners. Likewise, everyday people are seen in terms of their strengths and assets rather than their needs or deficiencies.

Boyte notes that, “public work conveys the idea of the citizen as co-creator of democracy, understood as a way of life not simply periodic elections. In politics, it enriches the metaphor of Hannah Arendt‟s famous table around which people gather in public life, by paying attention to the process of creating the table itself” (2004, p. xvii, emphasis mine).

While volunteerism and service learning are important aspects of civic education in America, these efforts can often too narrowly define the goals of the larger work. Nick Longo argues that,

Aside from the focus on schooling and curriculum, civic education tends to promote the easiest things to count – voting, volunteer hours, and the acquisition of civic knowledge. When this happens, civic learning is an isolated project, not part of a broader culture of democratic engagement. And, perhaps most significant, civic education becomes about getting young people to participate in the system as it is, rather than helping to create a different kind of public life (2007).

Longo highlights the importance of diverse communities in educating for democracy and offers an “ecological approach” to civic learning. This approach moves beyond a political system marked by scarcity of resources to a politics of abundance and creative possibility rooted in individual citizens‟ ability for collective action.

The Democratic Roots of Service learning

Gary Daynes and Nick Longo have pointed out the contributions of Jane Addams in the development of service learning in America (2004). As understood through the life and work of Addams, service learning is rooted in practice prior to theory and locates it in the rich work of communities as opposed to the university classroom. In this context, educational institutions play a clear supporting role, but the power of service learning is found in its deep democratic connections between “regular” people.

Commitment to the public or common good was salient in Addams work. While the progressive-era academics of her time was characterized by positivistic thinking and expert-driven methods, Addams focused on relational experiences, deep reflection, and open leadership that took seriously the creative capacities of individual citizens. She characterized her settlement house efforts as a “protest against a restricted view of education.” Daynes and Longo argue that revisiting Addams‟ commitment to democratic (public) work can address many shortcomings of current service learning efforts.

One of the most significant of these shortcomings is the “problem of service.” Critics of service learning are quick to point out the top-down and apolitical nature of many contemporary service learning programs. These programs “do good,” but often fail to address the root causes of injustice and the

shared burden of public problem solving in a democratic society. The learning is therefore weakened as students understand themselves to be well-intentioned servants to a passive public as opposed to collaborators, catalysts, and organizers of rich community resources. In the context of this article, Daynes and Longo challenge their readers to recognize important historical practices that can reconstitute a conceptual language of service learning characterized by public work.

A further important aspect of public work is its ability to engender skills and capacities in citizens as the result of the public problem solving process itself and in so doing make visible the harmful effects of blind consumerism. Theories of participatory democracy and basic community service do not in themselves carry the potential to develop civic agency. Civic attitudes and dispositions are primarily formed, not through acquisition of theoretical knowledge, but through the practice of public work. The collective experiences of public work then shape our closely held civic beliefs and attitudes. In short, we act to believe – not the other way round.

Act to Believe

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that action precedes belief, but this is precisely what I am proposing. This is not to imply that belief cannot lead to action; rather, I am suggesting that the relationship between belief and action is much more complex than a conventional linear progression. In his research on social movements, Ziad Munson focuses on the process by which people become involved in social activism rather than on the individual attributes activists may possess. Munson shows how beliefs about social and moral issues are as much the product of social movement participation as they are the impetus for such involvement (Munson 2008).

Conventional wisdom holds that one‟s beliefs lead to social activism by serving as the motivation to express and act on their ideas (e.g. Lichbach 1994). Munson argues that the assumption that individual beliefs necessarily causally precede social movement participation is false. He does so through a case study of pro-life activists who get involved in the movement before developing meaningful pro-life beliefs. He demonstrates how action in the movement actually precedes commitment to pro-life ideas or the development of a pro-life conceptual language. Munson says,

Conventional wisdom suggests that social movements are forms of expressive behavior. People get involved because they care about the environment, women‟s rights, the exploitation of wage laborers, peace, or abortion. Preexisting beliefs, in other words, are understood to motivate and underlie commitment to the cause. From this perspective, the task of understanding pro-life activism is to understand why some people come to regard the abortion issue as so important that they are willing to contribute time and resources, or risk arrest, to end it. My data on the pro-life movement challenge this conventional wisdom. The link between beliefs and action in social movements must be turned on its head: real action often precedes meaningful beliefs about an issue…Mobilization occurs when people are drawn into activism through organizational and relational ties, not when they form strong beliefs about abortion…The “process of conviction” is the result of mobilization, not a necessary prerequisite for it (2008, pp. 19-20).

Munson‟s work bridges social movement and moral development theory by emphasizing the ways in which attitudes and motivations are formed within the context of communities. He stresses that social movements are public spaces in which beliefs are formed and solidified, not simply arenas for the reflection and expression of predetermined ideas. The formative activities that take place within the context of social movements can be likened to public work in so far as work necessarily involves collaboration to co-create our environments. This activity not only provides opportunity for the generation and discussion of ideas, but for the very development of citizenship itself. In this way, social movements are not merely about the accomplishment of policy goals, but about the formation of people who sustain the way of life embodied in the movement. The effects of social movements continue long after a legislative vote, because the work taken up in social movements significantly shape the attitudes and behaviors of the people who participated in them.

The key point is that most often we do not fully understand our goal until we are on our way toward achieving it. This is so, because our imagination for and convictions about the type of society we wish to have is only fully accessible through the work required to create it. Put in a slightly different way, the virtues of citizenship – including relationship-building across difference, tolerance for ambiguity, ability to deal with conflict constructively, and the capacity to act in open environments without predetermined outcomes – are cultivated not merely through intellectual ascent, but through everyday practices of public work. The virtues themselves allow us to realize the true value of a vibrant democracy. So, as the title of this article suggests we often do not understand the fullness of our goal until we begin the work required to reach it.

From Theory to Agency

For those of us committed to kind of service learning espoused by Daynes and Longo, public work matters because it provides a way to move from theoretical frameworks to civic agency – constituted by the skills and capacities that allow people to transcend mere consumer culture and work across differences to co-create their environments. This is not to diminish the value of theory. Indeed, theoretical analysis is critical to reflection and evaluation, but the analysis itself is more effective within the milieu of practice, particularly within a civic context. Like the conventional relationship between belief and activism discussed above, it is often assumed that we need an operative theory to begin to work across difference toward a common goal (figure 1).

The practice of public work offers an alternative to this approach. As illustrated in figures 2 and 3 below, the catalyst for developing civic agency is action, which leads to theoretical reflection, which in turn leads to further action, and so on. This cyclical approach takes place within the context intentional free spaces that allows for creative interaction between participants. The creation of these “free spaces” is critically important for the service learning educator. The interaction and reflection that occurs during public work cultivates a civic imagination that would not otherwise arise. As participants engage in public work, they acquire a conceptual language of active citizenship that allows them to understand and embrace their own civic agency. As the result of working with others to achieve a common goal or good, participants develop the public confidence to act with a renewed sense of ownership and common destiny.

This approach differs from a service-oriented framework in so far as participants act, not based on purely altruistic motivations, but on their own interests. It closes the gap between self and “other” by recognizing that everyone, regardless of his or her background, can be a powerful public actor. While service is traditionally done for passive recipients, public work is always done with others to achieve a shared goal. While the will to serve is certainly an admirable quality, a vibrant democracy requires movement beyond “serving needs” or “charitable help” to deep reciprocal relationships that recognize the nature of everyday politics and power. In a brilliant account of his transformation from service to “organizing,” Stephen Smith notes that when we teach our students the model of servant and served, we prepare them to have a difficult time relating to people different from themselves.

We prepare [students] to be surprised when they realize that homeless people aren‟t lazy or that poor parents actually care about their kids. Perhaps saddest of all, we prepare them to monopolize the ability to give. What makes relationships so great is reciprocity, give-and-take. By teaching a model of servant and served, we hinder our students‟ innate ability to receive and our clients‟ innate ability to give in meaningful ways (2010).

As indicated by Smith‟s comments, the way we approach civic education – whether from a public work or service-oriented perspective – has strong implications for how we practically structure formative experiences for our students.

Jane Addams had a keen understanding of both the promise of young people‟s role in a healthy democracy as well as the obstacles they face. She identified the “feeling of powerlessness” as a core dilemma, which must be addressed. In an 1892 address, Addams wrote,

We have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided for them to change it, and their uselessness hangs upon them heavily….The sense of uselessness is the severest shock which the human system can sustain, and that if persistently sustained, it results in atrophy of function (Addams 1910, p. 83).

Addams reminds us that young people are not citizens in deferral, but present, powerful public actors. She criticized the assumption that young people were “not quite ready” for citizen engagement and warned that a continual “getting ready for,” rather than actively participating in, a democratic society can easily be carried forward into later life.

It‟s not a new idea that we place great hope in young people‟s ability to create positive change, but we often fail to show them how to create such change. They must embrace the power of their ideas and ability to act for the common good. As educators, we will teach theory and share knowledge, but we must not forget that the end of service learning is not mere theoretical formulation, but culture change – and for this, public work matters.

Postscript: Practicing Public Work

If civic educators take public work seriously, it has the potential to recall service learning back to its historical roots as described by Daynes and Longo. A growing number of state colleges and universities are using the public work approach to renew the civic mission of their institutions. These institutions, organized through the American Association of State Colleges and Universities‟ American Democracy Project, are using community organizing and development methodologies to integrate deep service learning principals through their diverse teaching and research agendas.

For example, faculty and students at the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility (ICSR) at Western Kentucky University have organized a certificate program in Citizenship and Social Responsibility. The program is designed to emphasize the public relevance of the various academic disciplines. When students at WKU show interest in areas of social change and sustainability, the staff of the ICSR push students, not to seek particular majors, but to connect their existing disciplinary interests to their growing concern for the public good. The goal therefore is to cultivate “citizen professionals” across the academic units – e.g. citizen nurse, citizen engineer, citizen historian, etc.

This goal is addressed through a number of curricular and co-curricular efforts facilitated by the ICSR. A commitment to public work serves as the “connective tissue” that holds together the various efforts. In the case of curriculum, certificate students begin with a core course called Public Problem Solving where they learn the knowledge, skills, and values associated with public work. A salient feature of this course, and the program in general, is that students understand the role of community as both co-educator and co-creator of society. Students learn to draw out knowledge and wisdom from the communities in which they work and to cultivate indigenous leadership. In almost all cases, students report that local people actually have the knowledge and resources to solve their own problems – they just need to be organized.

When students see themselves as catalysts of such work, as opposed to servants of predetermined needs, they gain an otherwise inaccessible level of public confidence and problem-solving skills.


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About the Author:

Paul N. Markham is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility at Western Kentucky University. He is primarily interested in the methods and practice of community organizing and development. Through his role at WKU, he works with students to address complex social problems and bring the scholarship of community-based research and teaching to bear on these issues. Markham and his colleagues have designed a curriculum-based public work program at WKU.


Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.